Preview season is always a great time, not just because we get to see new
cards but also because it’s an opportunity to reflect on the past season.
When evaluating new cards, it’s always exciting to think about what might
be possible. However, it’s also important to remember that these cards
won’t be played in a vacuum. The strength of any card in modern Magic is
contextual, and part of the fun is figuring out where new cards will land.
The story of Dominaria Standard was the red cards were mostly just
better than everything else. Red has some of the most powerful early
aggression and cheap spot removal. It also has the most powerful and
flexible midrange threats in Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer.
This combination makes red decks extremely difficult to attack. It would be
one thing if, after sideboarding, you could just blunt a red deck’s early
offense and then reliably go over the top of them. However, part of what
makes Mono-Red and R/B Aggro so tough to combat is their versatility. You
never know for sure what your R/B Aggro opponent’s curve is, or what your
Mono-Red opponent’s sideboard configuration will look like. Saturating your
deck with cheap spot removal for game 2 is risky when it could just rot in
your hand as you stare down a Chandra.
For the past few years I’ve been focusing primarily on playing precisely
this type of aggressive midrange deck. From Bant Humans in Shadows Over Innistrad Standard to Mardu Vehicles to R/B Aggro
today, I’ve mostly been interested in an aggressive shell with the ability
to switch roles and play a grindy game. It’s through this lens that I’m
looking at Core Set 2019. Specifically, I want to see powerful
threats that give my deck some flexibility and depth.
Chandra and Glorybringer will always have a special place in my heart. That
said, I’m also hopeful to see alternative options for aggressive and
midrange strategies, and a great place to look is white. Since Ixalan was released, white has been a bit lacking. We’ve seen some
aggressive token strategies pop up, and History of Benalia put W/B Aggro in
the spotlight for a weekend or two, but it was quickly displaced by the red
cards and everyone’s least favorite Goblin. For the most part, the white
decks we’ve seen have either been control decks or have played the card
God-Pharaoh’s Gift. Will Core Set 2019 give white what it takes to
reclaim its proper place on the color pie?
Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants caught my attention right away. The first thing
I’m looking for in any new card is how it will line up against the existing
threats, in this case Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer. Four
mana for four loyalty is a good start, as you can immediately use the +1
ability to get him out of range of a potential Glorybringer attack.
Alternatively you can cast him, crew Heart of Kiran, and then activate him
to give Heart of Kiran five toughness.
The natural place for me to start is in deck that plays Heart of Kiran.
Vehicles play well with Ajani, since you’ll want to already have creatures
on the battlefield when you cast him. Since you don’t have to crew them if
you don’t want to, your opponent will often have to keep mana open if they
want to deny you value from his +1 ability.
Slotting Ajani directly into W/B Aggro makes sense since that deck already
wants access to another planeswalker after sideboarding. He’s also got a
natural affinity for History of Benalia, as it gives you two creatures to
boost. Karn, Scion of Urza can help keep the battlefield flooded with
creatures, and Walking Ballista also happens to work nicely with Ajani’s +1
While this seems like a decent place to start, we’re mostly just ignoring
his -2 ability. Most of his potential is going to come from the times when
we can generate six mana worth of effect for only four mana. Part of what
makes Chandra, Torch of Defiance so powerful is the option to cast her on
turn 4 and then use her -3 ability to remove your opponent’s only threat,
since it still leaves you with a four mana permanent on the battlefield.
Ajani can do something similarly powerful, giving you a blocker and the
potential to bring something else back the following turn. It takes some
work to set up, so ideally we’d like a creature that gives us some kind of
advantage when it enters or leaves the battlefield so that we can get paid
handsomely for our efforts.
- 4 Glint-Nest Crane
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Scrap Trawler
- 4 Metallic Mimic
- 2 Merchant's Dockhand
- 4 Walking Ballista
This probably isn’t as aggressive as I’d like to be, though there’s some
interesting stuff going on here. Our biggest strength is that we’re great
at finding Aethersphere Harvester. Glint-Nest Crane is just begging to
chump block so that we can bring it back with Ajani, which should help us
to stabilize and build a huge army of Constructs.
As long as we’re getting grindy, here’s a new twist on an old favorite.
- 2 Siege-Gang Commander
- 3 Pia Nalaar
- 3 Angel of Invention
- 1 Aviary Mechanic
- 3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- 2 Earthshaker Khenra
- 3 Dire Fleet Daredevil
- 4 Dark-Dweller Oracle
This is probably trying a little too hard to be grindy, but it serves to
show what’s possible. There are a lot of directions you can go here,
potentially including Bomat Courier and Veteran Motorist, which would then
point you back down the vehicles route. We’re pretty good at cluttering up
the battlefield, and the value we get from Ajani, Dark-Dweller Oracle, and
Siege-Gang Commander should let us grind pretty well. Ultimately whether or
not something like this is good is going to depend a lot on what the rest
of the metagame looks like. I fully expect Goblin Chainwhirler to retain a
hold on the format, but if that starts to slip you might be able to branch
out a little, possibly including Fanatical Firebrand.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 2 Angel of Sanctions
- 4 Resilient Khenra
- 2 Wildgrowth Walker
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 2 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 3 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
- 4 Cast Out
Speaking of branching out, not only can we can get a little extra out of
explore when we return a Merfolk Branchwalker or we can potentially dump
something else into the graveyard. This is going to be weak against
control, but against red if we can use Ajani’s +1 ability to get Shalai’s
toughness above four, we should be in a great spot.
Moving down Core Set 2019, I see another possible hit. Is this
card the new Hero of Bladehold? I guess so, but is that good enough? It can
certainly generate a ton of advantage very quickly since the lifelink nets
you an six-point life swing the first time it attacks; however, it gives
you nothing when you cast it and it has to survive an entire turn cycle.
Its glaring weakness right now is its four toughness. For four mana, we
really want something that can survive both Chandra and Glorybringer. It’s
possible that we won’t really see this card shine until rotation or we can
try to get his toughness above four with Ajani.
When Resplendent Angel was previewed, the first thing I thought was, “Meh,
dies to Abrade.” There are plenty of three mana 3/3 creatures with decent
abilities; Weldfast Engineer and Depala, Pilot Exemplar are perfectly fine
cards that are just not quite good enough for Standard right now. There’s
just a ton of competition at the three mana spot on the curve, as no matter
what color you are, you’re always going up against Aethersphere Harvester.
Additionally, none of these generate any type of advantage simply for
entering the battlefield, which is a big reason why Pia Nalaar still sees
play despite the Thopter token getting picked off by Goblin Chainwhirler.
That said, I think my first impression of Resplendent Angel gave short
shrift. For one, it has flying, which can be super important against green
decks of both the Ghalta, Primal Hunger and G/B Constrictor varieties, as
well as against decks that play History of Benalia and Karn, Scion of Urza.
Second, its activated ability is real. Sure, many games will play out such
that you won’t realistically be able to spend six mana for fear of a
removal spell. However, a ten point life swing and a bonus Serra Angel is a
pretty powerful effect. There will be times where you and your opponent
will both be in topdeck mode or your opponent won’t have a removal spell,
and the ability will give you outs to win a game you would have otherwise
had no shot to win.
Where Resplendent Angel really shines though is when you can cast it and
immediately generate a 4/4. Against most decks, three mana for seven power
worth of flying is absolutely game-swinging. Gaining five life is a big
ask, but if your deck is capable of doing it, then most of the time your
opponent will be forced to do one of two things: use removal on your
lifegain enablers, potentially clearing the way for your Resplendent Angel,
or keep removal up to kill Resplendent Angel before the end step trigger.
Either way, you come out ahead on the exchange.
The best way to use Resplendent Angel will be in an aggressive shell where
we can force our opponent into these tough spots.
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 2 Glory-Bound Initiate
- 2 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 2 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
- 4 Resplendent Angel
We’re not trying to do anything fancy here. Our goal is just to apply
pressure and make the possibility of an end of turn Angel trigger scary for
our opponents. We don’t need to play bad enablers to try to max out on
making 4/4s. The closest we come to doing that is Glory-Bound Initiate,
which may not be good enough right now. That said, you never know what the
metagame will look like after a new set.
These new cards are nice and all, but the big question still remains: Is
there a reason to play white instead of red in an aggressive deck? As
always, the answer is that it depends. In order to get to “Yes,” we need to
consider what we’re giving up.
We won’t be able to cast Goblin Chainwhirler and punish our
opponents for playing one-toughness creatures. Depending on what
the format looks like, that might not actually matter. If enough
people shy away from good cards like Llanowar Elves and
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, that’s a cost that they’re already paying
and we can just be a free rider.
We lose Bomat Courier. I’m not too concerned. This potentially
makes us worse against control, but overall it’s not a big loss.
- We lose cheap spot removal–in particular, Abrade.
We don’t get to play with Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of
Defiance. This is the biggest issue, as both of these cards excel
at generating both an immediate mana advantage as well as
incremental value over several turns.
Those last two hurt the most, but in return for putting Plains in our deck
we gain the following:
We get to remove permanents of any type with Cast Out, Ixalan’s
Binding, and Angel of Sanctions.
We get to exile problem cards like The Scarab God and Hazoret the
Fervent, the latter of which is particularly troublesome for red
- We get access to Fumigate.
We get History of Benalia, which is excellent against small red
We get to play with Ajani. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s a true
replacement for Chandra, as it’s harder to get value out of his
abilities. His ultimate is also much less threatening. It still
shines on empty battlefields, stalemates, or in topdeck wars, but
it’s way easier for a control deck to beat. But replacing Chandra
is a big ask. Ajani’s still a great card, and the ability to make
large Knight tokens, Hearts of Kiran, and Shalais is potentially
We get Resplendent Angel. I’m the most excited about this one,
since as an aggressive card that offers a mana sink, it does all of
the things I want to do.
Is that enough for me to put down my Abrades and Unlicensed
Disintegrations? For now, yes. The potential is definitely there, and I
can’t wait for the set release so I can try this stuff out.